Marvel gets a lot right on the big screen – the gate receipts are proof of that. Whether or not you think that their approach is too childish, humourous or lacking in depth, you can’t argue that the current tone of Iron Man, The Avengers, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy and to a lesser extent, Captain America, is outrageously successful.
But let’s not forget Marvel has had some misses as well. Not all of the characters outside of their editorial control on the big screen have met with acclaim – but let’s not start talking about the Fantastic Four. One character in particular is still waiting for his definitive live action portrayal: The Punisher.
That could be about to change. Jon Bernthal, who has made his name playing Shane Walsh in the first two seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, and had a Hollywood hit on his hands last year as part of Brad Pitt’s war movie Fury, is the latest to take on the role. He’ll play The Punisher in season two of Marvel’s critically acclaimed Daredevil, and will be the fourth actor to try and get the role right.
Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, The Punisher, or Frank Castle, as is his real name (well actually it’s Castiglioni if you want to be technical about it), is a vigilante whose family was killed in the crossfire of a mob hit. With the justice system failing him, thanks to bent cops, crooked judges, and shyster lawyers, he decides to take the law into his own hands. He becomes The Punisher, dressed all in black with a white skull on his chest. Over the years, Castle’s backstory has been explored extensively. He started as a Spider-Man villain, but soon his tormented history came to the fore. Created by Gerry Conway, and his persona built on by the likes of Steven Grant, Jason Aaron, and most famously Garth Ennis, The Punisher became that rarity in the comic world: A normal human being.
Frank Castle isn’t imbued with superpowers, can’t fight other heroes or villains to a standstill with his bare hands (unless they’re normal like him), and unlike that other famous black-clad vigilante, doesn’t have an arsenal of expensive toys at his disposal. His background, particularly under the pen of Garth Ennis, changed from a gun toting, two dimensional thug, into a tortured war veteran who tried to stop other people following the same path as him. Ennis made Castle a man in a hero’s world, who chose to take the path many others didn’t.
That’s why The Punisher has been so difficult to get right – he is, without doubt, a murderer. He’s not a murderer of aliens, insane androids, or world conquering villains. He murders mob bosses, hitmen, rapists, people traffickers and terrorists. That killing streak makes him difficult to sympathise with, and difficult to transfer to the big screen while keeping him a good guy.
But that hasn’t stopped people trying. As we’ve mentioned above, there have been three other attempts to bring Frank Castle to the screen – none of which have made him popular enough to be considered for a shot at being part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Here’s the evidence:
The Punisher (1989)
Jointly made in the US and Australia, this was the first attempt to bring Frank Castle to the big screen, played by Dolph Lundgren. This movie came at a time when Marvel knew they wanted to do something with their superheroes, but not sure what. You might remember the classic Incredible Hulk TV series from 1978? This is nothing like that. Marvel had moved away from nostalgia and on to cheese. Cheap efforts at Captain America and Iron Man (don’t ask, they’re not very good) were mirrored by a lackluster Punisher movie. Why is it bad? Well the acting, for a start. Lundgren, while undoubtedly having the overall look of Frank Castle, mainly stands there and looks moody. He does, admittedly, blow lots of things up and shoot lots of people, but beyond that? Well, he grunts his way through the film to the extent his turn as Gunnar in The Expendables seems like Ian McKellen in comparison. Add to that some poorly written characters like “Shake”, a rhyming alcoholic failed actor, exposition heavy detective Jake Berkowitz (played by Louis Gossett Jr.) and double crossing mob boss Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé, who had taken a starring role in the James Bond movie The Living Daylights just two years before). The film also had a troubled production, being banned in some countries from having a theatrical release. New World Studios, who had made the film on behalf of Marvel, were underperforming financially, and that led to it going straight to video in the USA. The other big problem with the movie? The Punisher’s symbol, his emblem, the one thing that separated him from other heroes – the skull – was gone. Lundgren just dressed in black, making him indistinguishable from every other vigilante out there. Not a big issue, but big enough for some people to view this one unfavourably.
The Punisher (2004)
Criminally underrated, and perhaps, in some circles, unfairly criticised. Thomas Jane donned the skull T-shirt for this take on The Punisher, providing a more cerebral portrayal of Frank Castle. The film messes around with it’s source material (in the days before that would cause internet outrage), changing the protagonist from a Vietnam veteran to an undercover cop, who’s dual life is exposed and his extended family wiped out by John Travolta’s devilish mobster Howard Saint. Marvel had a much bigger hand in this one, working with Lionsgate Entertainment, so the character had much more familiar tones. The presence of a few comedy characters, like Spacker Dave and The Russian (played by WWE wrestler Kevin Nash), is perhaps the only downside, jarring violently with Jane’s tortured Punisher, who considers taking his own life on more than one occasion. The violence, when it occurs, is brutal, but the film is not just about fighting. Castle crafts a revenge driven plot to get back at Saint, always making it clear that his goal is not justice; but punishment. The overarching plot is Castle’s manipulation of Saint’s powerbase, making him lose faith in his most trusted confidants, until he is on his own, and at The Punisher’s mercy. That turned some people off the movie, saying that this version of character didn’t have the drive that the printed page persona had. Jane was physically smaller than the comic book interpretation, who has typically been portrayed as a hulking, intimidating figure, and that also attracted criticism. The movie was panned on its theatrical release, but has since attracted a cult following, that led to Jane revisiting the character in the fan film Dirty Laundry in 2011, which you can find here (caution: contains graphic content).
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
It flopped at the cinema, but if anything it’s more faithful to The Punisher that Garth Ennis created than any other interpretation so far. Lexi Alexander took the reigns for this one – a female director for an ultra-violent testosterone filled gunfest turned some people off immediately, but she remained faithful to plenty of The Punisher’s core elements: His refusal to take on law enforcement even if they get in his way, his willingness to protect innocent bystanders caught up in the crossfire of his war, and his connections to his family.
Originally intended as a sequel to the 2004 movie, this film depicts Castle, this time played by Ray Stevenson (formerly of the TV series Rome, and who went on to play another Marvel character as Thor’s Volstagg of The Warriors Three), as being active for several years, to the extent the police have set up a task force to track him down. When he accidentally kills an undercover cop during an assault on a mob stronghold, he begins to question his mission. This is set against the backdrop of disfigured narcissist Billy Russoti, transformed into Punisher villain Jigsaw after having this head introduced to several hundred tons of broken glass in the opening scenes, wanting retribution. His crusade for revenge leads to a raw, uncompromising, brutal finale, where the body count and acts of violence stack up within seconds. The movie attracted much criticism for its particularly gut churning ending, where Russoti forces The Punisher to choose between innocent people, and his friend Micro, and is ultimately dispatched in a disturbingly graphic death scene. That violence proved too much for some people, and coupled with lots of pre-production problems, saw it savaged by critics. Financially, it performed poorly, making back only $10m worldwide compared to it’s $35m budget. The film only grossed just over $8m in the US, making Punisher: War Zone the lowest grossing film based on a Marvel Comics property, below Elektra and Howard the Duck. That tells its own story.
Jon Bernthal therefore has some leeway to make the character his own. Maybe it helps he;s being introduced in another character’s show, and won’t be the focal point. Given the gritty surroundings of Daredevil, it might be the ideal way to depict Frank Castle’s crusade, and both of them have had clashes in the past over the correct way to deal with criminals. It’s not unreasonable that they may be posed an enemies to begin with, as The Punisher’s lethal approach is at odds with Matt Murdock’s belief in the justice system. Add to that both have had their run ins with the currently incarcerated Wilson Fisk in the books, and Frank Castle adds an unpredictable, combustible element to the live action Marvel Universe. Who knows, maybe they’ll get him right this time?